Great Northern Railway (U.S.)

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United States  Gotoarrow-kelly.png  Migration  Gotoarrow-kelly.png  Railroads  Gotoarrow-kelly.png  Great Northern Railway (U.S.)

Marias Pass, Montana is the lowest U.S. railroad crossing of the Continental Divide. Here a BNSF (successor to Great Northern) train emerges from a snow shed.

The Great Northern Railway was the only "transcontinental" service built with almost no land grants from the federal government, and one of the few that did not go into receivership in the Panic of 1893. It's transcontinental route primarily from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington was north of the Northern Pacific route. This was the sixth railroad company in the United States to offer transcontinental service. Their route was built up slowly by making each part commercially successful before building further. It was completed in 1893.

Settlers were attracted to nearby communities because the railroads provided access to markets. Railroads encouraged settlement along their routes to help increase the need for their service. For example, the Great Northern supplied seed and animals to start-up farmers, held promotional contents for largest farm animal and largest freight car capacity.[1] If an ancestor settled near a railroad, you may be able to trace their place of origin back to another place along the tracks.

Historical Background

Early transcontinental railroad visionaries proposed several possible routes including one along the border with Canada. Such a route offered more flat prairie land and known mountain passes, but had the disadvantage of less population and greater snow-weather problems.[2]

The Great Northern was formed by James J. Hill in 1889 by merging three railroads, the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway, and the Montana Central Railroad. His goal was the produce profits on lines before extending them further. He also sought the flattest, straightest possible route with fewest curves. The Great Northern crossed the continental divide at Marias Pass, 5,280 feet, lowest divide crossing south of the Canadian border.

A few months after the transcontinental line was completed the Panic of 1893 started. Hill aggresively reduced expenses, including repeatedly cutting employee wages. By also cutting fares, freight rates, and extending credit he actually increased the value of the Great Northern Railway during the panic. However, after the panic there were strikes and he had to restore wages to pre-panic levels.[3]

Routes were extended into Montana mining areas, and south from Seattle into California.

1865 to link San Francisco and San Diego, California by rail. By 1877 they were building track east into Yuma, Arizona and headed for New Mexico and Texas.[4] In March 1881 the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway connected with Southern Pacific lines at Deming, New Mexco to form the second transcontinental line. A few months later, in December 1881 the Southern Pacific linked with the Texas and Pacfic Railway at Sierra Blanca, Texas to form the third "transcontinental" railroad. Fourteen months later in February 1883 the Southern Pacific completed an expensive low bridge over the Pecos River in Texas linking New Orleans, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California entirely on its own tracks (fourth transcontinental line).[5] In 1892 Southern Pacific eliminated 11 miles of steep and curvy grades on its Sunset Route in Texas by building a new Pecos Viaduct (high bridge) 5 mile further north near Langtry, Texas, for many years the highest bridge in America. This viaduct was replaced with a new railroad bridge including all concrete piers in 1944.[6]
Southern Pacific RR map.png


From east to west some of the most signficant towns on a typical route were:

Routes in Oregon and the old Central Pacific tracks through Nevada to Ogden, Utah also were controlled at various times by the Southern Pacific Company.[7]

Settlers and Records

Settlers who made their way west on the Southern Pacific were likely to be from the southern states, especially Louisiana and Texas. However, via the Texas and Pacific Railway link to St. Louis, Missouri, and the Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway link to Chicago, Illinois many people using the Southern Pacific Railroad to settle in New Mexico, Arizona, and California could also have come from Midwestern states as well.

There are no known passenger lists for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Internet Links


  1. Wikipedia contributors, "Great Northern Railway (U.S.)" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at (accessed 17 September 2010).
  2. David A. Lanegran and Carol Louise Urness, Minnesota on the Map : a Historical Atlas (St. Paul, Minnesota : Minnesota Historical Society Press, c2008), 116-17. (FHL 977.6 E7L) WorldCat entry.
  3. Wikipedia contributors. "James Jerome Hill" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia at (accessed 17 September 2010).
  4. Wikipedia contributors, "Southern Pacific Transportation Company" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at (accessed 4 July 2009).
  5. American Western History Museums, "Southern Pacific Railroad" in "Western Railroads" in American Western History Museums at (accessed 4 July 2009).
  6. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, "Amistad National Recreation Area: The Pecos Viaduct" in National Park Service [Internet site] at (accessed 4 July 2009).
  7. Wikipedia contributors, "Southern Pacific Transportation Company" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at (accessed 4 July 2009).